WASHINGTON -- Evangelical Christians never had it so good, but they seem not to know it. Instead of supporting the candidate who most shares their values -- Mitt Romney -- they seem hell-bent for the proverbial cliff.
Meeting recently in Salt Lake City, conservative Christian leaders almost unanimously approved a resolution to support a third-party candidate if neither major party nominates someone who is pro-life.
To their credit, these leaders are unwilling to sacrifice conviction for political expediency, but they may be creating their own worst nightmare by dividing the party and making a Democratic victory more likely.
James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, explained in a New York Times op-ed Thursday that Christian leaders believe any presidential candidate has to commit to traditional moral values, including the sanctity of human life, the institution of marriage and other pro-family principles.
Minimally, that means anti-Roe v. Wade, no same-sex marriage, no government funding for destruction of human life at any stage and no pro-sex education. These weren't controversial ideas a generation ago, but today they can make or break a candidate in a party whose political base is 30 percent evangelical Christian.
Perfection is a tough standard and hardly anyone is just right. John McCain has a perfect pro-life record, but he supports federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. He also doesn't support the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), which conservatives believe is necessary to protect marriage as between a man and a woman.
Under the radar, some conservative leaders say that McCain has contempt for pro-lifers, which perhaps explains his inability to successfully woo social conservatives.
Fred Thompson, upon whom many had pinned their hopes, has turned out to be a disappointment, not to mention a cure for insomnia. In Iowa recently, Thompson had to prompt his audience -- their faces masks of ennui -- to applaud. Freight trains have sparked more animation.
Thompson also doesn't support the FMA, which this week prompted one of his key campaign consultants, Bill Wichterman, to walk out. Wichterman, who previously served as conservative outreach director for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had been considered an important "get" for Thompson.
And then there's Mike Huckabee. If Dobson really meant what he said in his op-ed -- that winnability shouldn't be the deciding factor in supporting a candidate -- then Huckabee should be receiving bouquets of Ben Franklins with his morning beignets. A southern Baptist preacher, the former Arkansas governor is a human checklist of conservative values, as well as being personable, likable and funny.
What Huckabee doesn't have is the golden coffer, which means that electability is, in fact, a Christian concern.
That leaves just one person -- Romney -- as the obvious pick for the values party. If anything, the golly-gee guy is too perfect. Nary a follicle out of place, he's never enjoyed a caffeine buzz nor awakened to the rare tortures of having been overserved.
His resume otherwise has perfect creases. As governor of Massachusetts, he fought same-sex unions and embryonic cloning. He's pro-life, even if he was previously pro-choice. As a businessman, he made a personal fortune and bailed out the Olympics. He's even got a beautiful, first-ladylike wife, who thus far has not demanded cell-phone reassurances of unfaltering love during her husband's stump speeches.
The only hitch: He's a cultist. Or so some Christians think. Even though Romney shares their belief in Jesus Christ as God, other doctrinal differences tied to his Mormon beliefs apparently cause deep conflicts for evangelicals.
The crafters of push polls are no doubt working overtime, especially in South Carolina, where nobody goes broke baiting fear and phobia. If they could convince racist voters in 2000 that McCain's adopted Indian child was African-American, they won't have much trouble advancing the idea that Romney is a closet polygamist -- despite the fact that he's the only leading Republican candidate who has had just one wife.
Ultimately, Christian leaders (some of whom make off-the-record, supportive calls to Romney, I'm told) most likely will back the Mormon. But their actions meantime have hurt Romney as he tries to close the deal nationally.
If they were smarter, they'd embrace Romney as the one who can beat Hillary because he, more than anyone else, unites all wings of the party -- economic, security and social.